As aviators, we have the opportunity (some would say the obligation) to strive for continuous improvement. The most expert test pilots, instructors, and airshow performers don’t hesitate to acknowledge that every flight offers the chance to learn a little more about aerodynamics, weather, or airmanship. Beyond the satisfaction of lifelong learning, improving your crosswind landings or instrument proficiency offers the chance to get more out of your aircraft and yourself. But like most things in aviation, expanding the operational envelope is best done incrementally. Daring leaps risk disastrous landings.
About 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 23, 2010, a Piper PA-46-350P Malibu Mirage crashed into the water of Choctawhatchee Bay while attempting a GPS approach into Destin, Fla. The 400-hour private pilot was killed along with both of his passengers. Search-and-rescue efforts began six minutes after the airplane disappeared from the approach controller’s radar at Eglin Air Force Base, but were hampered by darkness and fog. With ceilings too low for an aerial search and visibility down to a quarter mile, it’s remarkable that rescuers were able to find it within an hour. The wreckage was not quite a mile from the threshold of Runway 14, upside-down in five feet of water. Only the right main gear extended above the surface.
The pilot had left Destin with one passenger about 3 p.m. and flown to New Orleans’ Lakefront Airport to pick up the second. The weather at Destin was already low, with a 300-foot overcast and visibility varying between a mile and a half and just half a mile in mist. The temperature hadn’t budged above the dew point all day, and forecasts offered little hope of improvement. The terminal area forecast for Eglin called for half-a-mile visibility and indefinite ceilings of 100 feet throughout the evening, but it’s not certain the pilot ever saw it. His only recorded weather briefing was obtained over the Internet in mid-afternoon, and the briefing packet saved by the Princeton Flight Service Station runs to 69 pages. It includes an advisory for volcanic eruptions in Ecuador, a notam warning of “potentially hazardous activities” in Afghanistan, and alerts to possible ground stops due to heavy volume at Chicago O’Hare. The relevant terminal forecasts begin on page 18, and those for Eglin and the nearby Hurlburt Air Force Field follow a military format less familiar to civilian pilots. At that time, they predicted 5 miles visibility under 1,000-foot broken ceilings—but they were updated about an hour later, and the new forecasts were considerably worse.
The Malibu left New Orleans about 6:20 p.m., cruising at 13,000 feet. As it descended over the Florida Panhandle, it initially seemed to follow a course toward Hurlburt Field until the controller issued vectors for the approach into Destin. He also advised the pilot that with horizontal visibility of a quarter mile and vertical visibility of 100 feet in fog, “I haven’t had anyone go into Destin for quite a while, so you’re going to be my first customer for some time.” The pilot acknowledged but elected to try the GPS approach to Runway 14 anyway. His approach clearance included the instruction to maintain 2,000 feet to the initial fix; two and a half minutes later, he was cleared for a change to the advisory frequency. The FBO at Destin heard him report a three-and-a-half mile final … then silence.
The GPS 14 approach to Destin is a fairly simple procedure, straight in with one step-down at the final approach fix. Minimum descent altitude without vertical guidance is 460 feet. Radar data showed the Malibu crossing both the initial and final fixes 200 feet low, then descending steadily until it disappeared. Its last recorded altitude was 200 feet. The throttle, mixture, and prop levers were all found full-forward, suggesting that the pilot might have recognized the situation in the last seconds before impact.
One could question the wisdom of taking off into ceilings below approach minimums, but nothing in FAR Part 91 prohibits it. Likewise, no regulation barred him from attempting the approach in even lower weather. He’d completed a flight review and instrument proficiency check in the same airplane just 17 days earlier, so his flying was presumably sharp. But he’d loaded a lot onto himself. Of his 400 hours of flight time, only 27 were in actual instrument conditions. He had logged less than 35 hours in the Malibu, which was significantly faster than the Saratoga he had flown before, and only half an hour of it had been in actual IMC. In attempting a nonprecision approach to minimums at night, with passengers on board and no CFI or co-pilot to cross-check his heading and altitude, it would seem that he’d tried to push his limits in too many ways at once.